US thinks North Korea may be ready to conduct underground nuclear tests this month

The assessment concludes that Kim Jong-un’s government is preparing at the Pungeri nuclear test site and may be ready to conduct a test by the end of the month. Signs of the presence of personnel and vehicles at the site have been visible on satellite imagery, but officials do not know if the regime has placed nuclear material in one of the underground tunnels at the site, which is closely monitored by the US.

If North Korea conducts a test, it would be the country’s seventh underground nuclear test and the first in nearly five years.

US President Joe Biden plans to visit South Korea and Japan later this month. This would not be the first time the threat of nuclear testing has loomed over a presidential visit: North Korea was preparing for nuclear testing in 2014 when President Barack Obama visited South Korea, and in 2016 North Korea conducted nuclear tests shortly thereafter. Obama and other world leaders left Asia after the summit.

White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said Thursday that the White House is not concerned about the president’s trip to East Asia later this month.

“I would say that we certainly always evaluate security, as we do with any trip of the President, but this is not a concern, since this is due to his trip, which will take place in just a few weeks,” Psaki said.

She added, “There is no doubt that North Korea will be on the agenda when he visits South Korea and Japan.”

Last month, CNN reported that satellite imagery showed North Korea was tunneling again at its remote underground nuclear test site to potentially shorten the time it would take for the next test.

North Korea has already conducted six nuclear tests at a test site north of Pyongyang, most recently in September 2017. In addition to preparing for a possible nuclear test, North Korea has retested ballistic missiles this year. the launch will take place on Wednesday.

Based on satellite imagery, the transverse tunnel at the site intersects with one of the main tunnels behind the entrance, which means that the distance to the underground launch site is less. In 2018, North Korea blew up the original entrance to the tunnel, but likely did not destroy the entire underground structure.

Pentagon spokesman John Kirby told reporters Wednesday that the Pentagon was “very deeply concerned” by North Korea’s missile tests, adding that the US and the international community had condemned the provocations.

“Frankly, there is never a good time for the DPRK to conduct tests like this,” Kirby said. “We continue to call on the North to stop these provocative tests and be ready to sit down, as we have proposed, we are ready to do so without preconditions, and discuss here a diplomatic way forward for the denuclearization of the North. .”

Kirby told reporters that Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin had a telephone conversation with South Korean Defense Minister Soo Wook on Thursday to discuss the security situation on the Korean Peninsula.

Last month, Kim pledged to step up his country’s nuclear weapons development, saying during a military parade that Pyongyang would “strengthen and develop” its nuclear forces at the “fastest possible” pace.

Wednesday’s missile tests were North Korea’s 13th this year, up from eight in 2021 and four in 2020. This year’s tests included the launch of an intercontinental ballistic missile in March, the first time Pyongyang fired this type of missile in four years.

CNN’s Jeremy Herb, Kevin Liptak, Zachary Cohen, Sam Fossum and Arlette Saenz contributed to the story.

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